Ameri­ka: The Miss­ing Person

Franz Kaf­ka; Mark Har­man, trans.
  • Review
By – December 20, 2011
Although The Tri­al and The Cas­tle are like­ly the most wide­ly known and read of Kafka’s nov­els, his first nov­el, Der Ver­schol­lene, to which his friend and lit­er­ary execu­tor, Max Brod, gave the title Ameri­ka upon its pub­li­ca­tion in 1927, con­tains many of the seeds of Kafka’s lat­er works. 

He began writ­ing the nov­el, which trans­la­tor Mark Har­man cor­rect­ly ren­ders in this new edi­tion as The Miss­ing Per­son,” in 1912 and wrote the last com­plet­ed chap­ter in 1914; while it appears from his let­ters and diaries that he intend­ed to return to this nov­el, he nev­er did, and it was unfin­ished when he died. 

Much in the tra­di­tion of the picaresque and the Bil­dungsro­man, or com­ing-of-age nov­el, Kafka’s book has fam­i­ly resem­blances to Her­man Melville’s Bil­ly Budd, Nathaniel West’s The Dream Life of Bal­so Snell, and Theodore Dreiser’s An Amer­i­can Tragedy. In Kafka’s sto­ry, young Karl Ross­man is ban­ished by his par­ents to Amer­i­ca because of his dal­liance with a house­maid. On the ship to New York, he becomes involved in an inci­dent with the ship’s stok­er that thrusts him into an unpleas­ant sit­u­a­tion. Act­ing on behalf of what he believes is right, Ross­man soon dis­cov­ers that duplic­i­ty and injus­tice are the ways of the world. When he arrives in Amer­i­ca, his lessons in the harsh­ness and unfair­ness of life con­tin­ue when he is wrong­ly accused of a num­ber of mis­deeds by his employ­er. The com­pan­ions he meets along his jour­ney betray him at every turn, and Karl soon learns, though he retains his opti­mism through these events, that injus­tice can be the dark side of the promise of Amer­i­ca. In the final com­plet­ed chap­ter, Karl begins his jour­ney to Okla­hama (as Kaf­ka spelled it) for a life in the theater. 

Dis­place­ment is a major theme in Kafka’s work, and we find it here not only in Karl’s jour­ney to Amer­i­ca but also in the every­day events in his life; Karl is always being dis­placed by forces over which he has no con­trol. Kafka’s per­sis­tent theme of the ani­mal­ism of human­i­ty — Gre­gor Samsa’s trans­for­ma­tion into a giant bug in Meta­mor­pho­sis is but one exam­ple — is evi­dent in Karl’s sur­name, Ross­man, which in Ger­man is horse-man.” Mark Harman’s bril­liant new trans­la­tion, based on the restored text of the nov­el, cap­tures splen­did­ly Kafka’s some­times dif­fi­cult Ger­man and presents us with a nov­el that mer­its many re-readings. 
Hen­ry L. Car­ri­g­an, Jr. writes about books for Pub­lish­ers Week­ly, Library Jour­nal, Book­Page, and Fore­Word. He has writ­ten for numer­ous news­pa­pers includ­ing the Atlanta Jour­nal-Con­sti­tu­tion, The Char­lotte Observ­er, The Cleve­land Plain Deal­er, The Orlan­do Sen­tinel, The Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, and The Wash­ing­ton Post Book World.

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